“You just missed the morning ritual,” says Albert “Tootie” Heath, pointing to the telephone wires running like thick veins over his Altadena home. The jazz drummer is dressed in a pair of blue overalls, a button with the face of Buckwheat from the Little Rascals pinned to the front. In one hand, Heath holds a fat Cuban cigar, brushing the air with it like a conductor’s baton.
“The parrots come through every morning,” he says. “The birds are smart, they acknowledge your presence, and they make a lotta noise.”
At 73, Heath takes his cues from the birds. Three mornings a week he walks the Rose Bowl, two mornings he jogs it. With the wisdom and experience of a musician who has played with John Coltrane, J.J. Johnson, Art Farmer, Dexter Gordon and Herbie Hancock, he continues to play at home and abroad. Neither disappointed nor intimidated by the direction of jazz and the way technology has transformed the music industry, he embraces it.
“I think it’s wonderful and it speeds everything up. I don’t see how we’ve lived all these years without it.”
Heath now composes with Digital Performer and listens to music on his laptop. This weekend he’s flying out to New York to play at Smalls with two younger musicians, Ethan Iverson and Ben Street.
“The music is fast and very frantic,” he says. “You know, you get guys like me, we still make music you can tap your feet to. But when I’m playing with younger people, I don’t know what to expect.”
But Heath has no problem keeping up. “It’s like an old guy getting a nice young girl. You know, that’s the stuff. Although you can’t handle it, but you still do it. Both of you. The girl, ’cause you know, she’s lookin’ for the old experience, and the old guy is lookin’ for the youth. So it’s a nice marriage, if you can make it work.”
Heath, who first recorded with Coltrane in 1957 and went on to form The Heath Brothers with, yes, brothers Percy (double bass) and Jimmy (saxophone), has lived in Altadena for 25 years with his wife, Beverly, an artist. His practice room, a converted carport between the front and back house, contains a meager arrangement of practice pads (he plays on a makeshift kit so as not to disturb the neighbors). The walls are decorated with tambourines, hand drums and beaded shekeres. The rest of the studio is consumed by Beverly’s artwork, intriguing arrangements of shells and beads and busts, shrinelike sculptures that decorate their enchanting house; symptoms of artistic coexistence.
The path to their house is lined with potted succulents. “Look at that tree, I can’t believe it,” says Heath, pointing to a lush tree creeping up above the brick wall. “It was naked just a week ago, but it’s back.”
What seems most important to Tootie Heath is that you do what makes you happy. Running the country is one thing he’d never want to do.
“You gotta duck bullets, shoes bein’ thrown at you maybe. Maybe bullets, you never know. I think I’d play drums over bein’ president. Take my chances with a drive-by shooting. That’s possible too. We don’t have any bodyguards, we just out here anyhow.”
Heath’s work as a drummer is founded on constancy, keeping the beat while everyone else moves along. Drummers have to be able to adapt, to deal with unexpected changes and, occasionally, when they get the chance, take a solo and nail it.
“You know, there’s an old Duke Ellington saying,” Heath recalls. “To play jazz you got to have one foot in Africa and the other foot in today. And I think it has expanded a bit: You got to have one foot in Africa and one foot in the future. If you bring along your culture and all of the things you’ve experienced to the future, it makes it richer.”
While he has traveled all over the world, Heath values a home base to return to. When Thelonius Monk’s friend, Baroness Pannonica “Nica” de Koenigswarter, was working on her book Les Musiciens de Jazz et Leurs Trois Voux, she asked musicians for their number one wish. Heath’s wish was to be in two places at once, and if you ask him, he’s got it — or nearly so.
“I’m not in two places at once, but it’s almost two places at once.” Heath smiles. “By the time I get back here, my spirit hasn’t caught up with me yet. I’m back here before it even leaves, so I’m actually feelin’ like I’m in two places at once.”
Heath has lived in Philadelphia, New York and Copenhagen, but L.A. has been his longest gig.
“I’m not gonna say it’s forever, though. Nothing is forever. Life is not forever. Unless my number is called in the next 10 years, I’m not gonna say forever. I’ll be floatin’ around with the birds then.”